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Old 11-07-2007, 12:00 PM
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Frank Viola, Leader in Sport of Racing Pigeons, Dies at 87

You don't hear too much about the "Sport of Racing Pigeons" these days....

Frank Viola, one of the grand old men of a grand old New York sport — pigeon racing — died on Oct. 3 at his home in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn. He was 87. The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his nephew Peter Viola said. Mr. Viola’s death was not formally announced until this week.

Pigeon racing in the United States is at least a century old, but the sport really took hold in this country in the decades after World War II. Then, it was impossible to walk down the street in certain New York neighborhoods (among them Bensonhurst and Bath Beach) without one’s eyes being drawn upward by wheeling flocks of birds, which exploded into the air like fistfuls of thrown confetti.

These were no ordinary street birds, but racers — homing pigeons whose care, feeding and lively under-the-table handicapping were the consuming pastime of a generation of New York men.

Though racing pigeons are the same species as the common variety (both are rock doves), they are to New York’s street birds what Secretariat would be to a Central Park carriage horse. A true racing pigeon, which can fly up to 70 miles per hour, is a thoroughbred — all speed, muscle and pedigree. It can find its way back to its coop from nearly a thousand miles away. Prices for the best birds can run to thousands of dollars, even hundreds of thousands.

For almost nine decades, Mr. Viola raised flocks of the finest pigeons he could buy, trucking them hundreds of miles from the city for the enormous thrill (and the less enormous monetary reward) of seeing them race home again. Throughout the city, on tenement rooftops and in tiny urban backyards, other men — immigrants or, like Mr. Viola, sons of immigrants — were doing the same.

Mr. Viola, who kept as many as a hundred birds at a time, won his share of races. But he was best known for sponsoring what was considered one of the most prestigious races of the year, the Frank Viola Invitational, a 400-mile contest in which the birds are released in Ohio and fly back to New York.

Begun in the early 1990s, the invitational is one of the few truly lucrative pigeon races in the country, with a total purse, put up by Mr. Viola, of more than $200,000. (Mr. Viola, who earned his living as a construction supervisor, did well in the stock market, his nephew said.) With his death, the race will no longer be held.

Mr. Viola, whose gruff manner belied the tender care he lavished on his brood — he plied them with vitamins, electrolytes and specially prepared food — was considered an especially fine judge of birdflesh. He could spot one of his own pigeons in a whirling flock a block or two distant, his nephew said. Studying a prospective purchase, he examined its eyes with a jeweler’s loupe, looking for the telltale subtleties of color and form that are believed to indicate prowess.

“He paid thousands of dollars for birds, but he would never sell a bird,” Peter Viola said in a telephone interview on Monday. “If you wanted one, and you came to the house and he liked you, he would give you the bird, with two stipulations: that you don’t sell it and you don’t kill it.”

Frank Peter Viola was born in Brooklyn on Jan. 7, 1920, to a family that kept racing pigeons. (The family name is pronounced vee-OH-lah.) His mother died when he was an infant, and Frank left high school to work with his father, a plasterer from Calabria, Italy.

When the United States entered World War II, Frank Viola enlisted in the Army. He served in five European campaigns and was wounded on the beach at Normandy, his nephew said. Mr. Viola’s pigeons also served: when war was declared, he donated them all to the military, which often used the birds to carry messages across enemy lines.

Mr. Viola’s first wife, Mary, died in the late 1960s; his second marriage ended in divorce. Besides his nephew Peter, of Staten Island, he is survived by his third wife, Kathleen, and many other nieces and nephews.

Today, pigeon racing is mostly an old man’s game. In the postwar years, there were scores of racing clubs in the greater New York area; perhaps a dozen survive. But even now, on certain fine Saturdays and Sundays, one can see men tautly poised on the city’s rooftops, scanning the sky for a few distant specks winging home.

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Old 11-07-2007, 12:45 PM
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Join Date: Aug 2006
Location: Houston, TX
Posts: 450
interesting article

My dad was an avid pigeon racer in his youth. Not from NY, but here in Houston, TX. He was born in 1937 and I think participated in the sport for several years - I'm guessing around 1946 or so. He never talked much about it, but my grandmother told me about crating the pigeons up and taking them to the train to be shipped away for a race.

As I remember my grandma talking about it, the racing organization would attach a document to the leg of the pigeon and release it at a documented time. When the pigeon arrived home, dad would pull the document out of the holder and mark it with (I think) some sort of timeclock device to record its arrival home.

He had some trophies from some of these races - I guess he did OK.

The curious thing was he built all of the coops in the backyard of my grandparent's house, and even devised a contraption that would ring a bell in his bedroom when the pigeons came home to roost.

This from a man, which as far as I could tell as a child, thought you "held the lightbulb and turned the house"... or maybe that was just an act?
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Old 11-07-2007, 01:25 PM
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Join Date: Mar 2006
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I remember a few movies (names escape me), where the neighborhood kids in NYC had nothing better to do than go up to the rooftops and race pigeons, or watch the old guys who did.

This obit for me was a flashback to simpler times.
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Old 11-08-2007, 08:09 AM
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Join Date: Aug 2006
Location: Houston, TX
Posts: 450
I sent the link to my dad and asked him if he knew of Mr. Viola. He said the name didn't ring a bell, but "one of the pigeons in the picture - a blue banded - looks like one of my champions that never came home..."

Dad can be funny at times...

Things were very different back "in those days" - imagine trying to sell a kid today on the concept of:

Get some pigeons - no, not those nasty ones in the park that pooped in your picnic lunch on our last trip to the zoo...

Raise 'em right - feed 'em every day - muck out their coop...

OK - a coop is a structure for housing birds - not a 2-door car. Come to mention it, they don't sell coops down at Wally-world - we're probably going to have to build one...

muck - Muck - MUCK - no, not that other word I said the other day when I hit my finger with the hammer... I mean clean all the pigeon $hit out on a regular basis, 'cause if you don't the neigbors are gonna howl.

OK - now they're big enough - crate 'em up and call UPS/Fedex (no more trains to ship 'em on) and have them shipped to BFE.

Someone there you've never met will accept delivery and at the appointed time, release them - I promise you can trust them.

Don't worry, they usually come home.

Once they get here - and get this - you'll probably have to sit up 24 hours-a-day for a few days around the window when they're due in - take the band off their ankle, log into the racing website and key the # you find on the band into the computer to record the arrival time.

Technology has improved - but likely the kid's eyes glazed over somewhere around "pigeon $hit" and they returned to the video game being played when you interrupted him with all this "nostalgia".
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Old 11-08-2007, 06:15 PM
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Location: Arlington, VA
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I have actually heard of this. I've only ever heard of it as something "old men do on the rooftops of buildings in NYC." I never heard of racing pigeons in the South. Horses, dogs, cars, etc, but no pigeons . . .

" The market, like the Lord, helps those who help themselves. But, unlike the Lord, the market does not forgive those who know not what they do."- Warren Buffett

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